Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Making Infrastructure Great?

Donald Trump speaking before the press
Photograph by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Hello Everyone:

It is time for the weekly edition of Blogger Candidate Forum.  This week we move from affordable housing to infrastructure.  Today we are going to look at seven of the infrastructural myths perpetuated by Republican nominee Donald Trump.  Our guid for today is Aria Bendix's CityLab article "7 Infrastructure Myths Perpetuated by Donald Trump."  Over the past year, we have been subjected to Mr. Trump's bloviating on a variety of hot-button subjects and himself.  One of the things he loves to brag about is how great a builder he is.  In fact, he stood before the American public and boasted that he could bring in any infrastructure project on time and under budget.  He even wrote a book on how he would fix America's ailing infrastructure, the strangely titles Crippled  America.  Ms. Bendix quotes Mr. Trump who agues,

...fixing the country's infrastructure would be a major priority project...When you talk about better talk about Trump.

Let us indulge Mr. Trump and consider this, "What exactly are Trump's views on building better cities and improving infrastructure in the U.S.?  And how to they stack up agains commonly held best practices in urban planning?"

Great River Bridge
Aria Bendix observes, "While Trump is right to identify that infrastructure is deteriorating in many areas of the U.S., his data and theories miss some major marks."  Mr. Trump has never been one for getting his facts and figures straight.  Here just a few of the more baffling infrastructure myth perpetuated by Mr. Trump.

61 percent of U.S. bridges are "in trouble"

Not exactly.  In 2014, the Federal Highway Administration cited 61,365 bridges as "structurally deficient."  This is different from being "in trouble."  It means that they need significant repair or maintenance, not falling down.  Out of the 610,749 bridges in the U.S. only 10 percent are actually in trouble.

If we include the 84,525 bridges considered "'functionally obsolete' and do not meet current design standards, the new figure still only works out to about 24 percent." Further, according to Washington D.C. infrastructure strategy firm CG/LA CEO Norman Anderson, some of these dilapidated bridges no longer important enough to maintain.  Mr. Anderson told Ms. Bendix,

A lot of those bridges you don't need [to continue operating].

He points to thousands of structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania to make his point.  Granted, many potential presidents get their fact figures mixed up.  Par for the course, but Mr. Trump has inflated this statistic on two occasions: at an August 25 press conference in Iowa (Ms. Bendix notes "where he declared that 59 percent of the bridges were in trouble).  The second instance was on October 14 at a rally in Richmond, Virginia.

Asbestos abatement
Cheshire, Connecticut
Asbestos is an ideal building material

Seriously?  Does this mean lead paint is also a suitable building material?  Asbestos was suitable building material in the mid-twentieth century because it was cheap, flexible, and fire resistant.  However, by the seventies, it was hard to ignore the scientific evidence linked to diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Decades after this evidence became public knowledge, Mr. Trump wrote in his 1997 tome. The Art of the Comeback, extolling the virtues of asbestos.  He called it

...the greatest fire-proofing material ever used...

He went even further to suggest that

...the movement against asbestos was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal...

In 2012, Donald Trump tweeted the outrageous claim that asbestos could have preserved the World Trade Center on September 11.  He tweeted,

If we didn't remove incredibly fire retardant asbestos [and] replace it with junk that doesn't work, the World Trad Center would have never burned down  (

Regardless of their fire-resistant properties, asbestos exposure is responsible for between "12,000 and 15,000 deaths each year."  Even more vexing is, "...the fact that the U.S. government continue to ignore the extent of asbestos-related health risks."  The Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban asbestos-containing products in 1989 but it was mostly overturned in 1999.  A comprehensive ban seems unlikely under a  possible Trump presidency.

Portion of existing U.S.-Mexico Border Wall
The U.S. can build a border wall

Blogger wonders if this was topic of discussion in today's meeting between Mr. Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto?  Probably not.  Be that as it may, this has been one of the most controversial infrastructure proposals.  There are so many things wrong with this idea, that your truly would need between now and next Election Day to adequately describe everything that is wrong with this idea.  However, let us start with cost of building this proposed 30 to 80 foot high, 2,000 mile wall.  The ballpark estimate is somewhere between $25 billion to build and $750 million a year to maintain (paid for by Mexico).

Even if Mr. Trump were convince President Peña Nieto to pick up the cost of this wall, there are a number of ethical concerns.  Aria Bendix writes: "Trump's proposal may very well violate the codes of ethics for many design associations across the U.S., in addition to the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act."  Ms. Bendix's colleague wrote in March, "As wit other controversial broader projects, firms that built this wall could be subject to boycotts, blacklists, and who can build it would, and no one who would build it can."

"Road Work Ahead"

U.S. roads can be built for a third of the current cost

When Mr. Trump announce his candidacy, he promised that he would rebuild America's infrastructure

one time, one budget, [and] way below cost...I look at the roads being built all over the country...and I say I can build those things for one-third.

Really?  One-third the cost?  Let Norman Anderson make sense of this claim.  According to Mr. Anderson, securing permits are the biggest expense in the road construction approval process.  He said,

An average highway project takes nine and a half years to get through the permitting and approval process.

Factor in a shorter approval process and Mr. Anderson estimates "that U.S. roads could be built for about half the cost that they are now, not one third..."  Of course, there remains the question of just exactly how Mr. Trump intends to cut costs.

Pothole repair
Denver, Colorado

 The U.S. is doing nothing to fix its crumbling infrastructure

Aria Bendix quotes Mr. Trump's argument in Crippled America that America is doing nothing to repair the crumbling infrastructure.

...our airports, bridges, water tunnels, power grids, rail systems-our nation's entire infrastructure is crumbling, and we aren't doing anything about it...

Really?  We can forget the fact that the U.S. spent "$416 billion on infrastructure in 2014 alone.  And just last year Congress passed the largest transportation package in over a decade."

I-35E Bridge with crumbling concrete
Jim Foli Star Tribune
At a December debate, Mr. Trump allied to what he thought was a sufficient amount the federal government should spend:

In my opinion, we've spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people.  If we we could've spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems-our airports and all of the other problems we've had-we would've been better off.

As astronomical as $4 trillion sounds, it is actually a more conservative estimate than the plan put forth by the Democratic nominee Secretary Hillary Clinton.  Mr. Anderson "this number is close to his own estimate for four-year infrastructure spending."  Where Mr. Trump gets it wrong is putting the burden on the federal government even with his proposed spending cuts.  Mr. Anderson said.

There's a lot of different places where you can get additional funding for infrastructure that has nothing to do with raising taxes, but really has a lot to do with optimizing and increasing the public sector's oversight and strategic role.

Robert Puentes, the director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institute made a similar argument in an interview with U.S. News:

I think because we generalize the conversation around infrastructure, we tend to overemphasize what the federal government should be doing and the federal role.  In reality, the federal government has a big regulatory role in a lot of ways.  But when it comes to overall spending and impact, it's relatively small...We've seen what happens when you have federal government directing a lot of these projects.  It doesn't always work.

The real problem is not that the U.S. is doing nothing to fix its crumbling infrastructure, the problem is it is not spending efficiently.  Instead of tossing out large sums, Ms. Bendix suggests that "Trump should be focused on strategic spending that involves key players from both the private and public sectors-an important nuance that often eve his promises of a 'trillion-dollar' plan."

Trump International Hotel and Tower under construction
Photograph by Jim Frazier
Washington D.C.
Nothing stimulates the economy more than construction

Aria Bendix writes, Yet another problem with Trump's somewhat nebulous infrastructure plan is the philosophy behind it."  Donald Trump boasts in Crippled America,

...there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that stimulates the economy better than construction...

Recent fate from the Department of Commerce does not bear this statement out.  Specifically, "According to their calculations, professional, scientific, and technical services were the largest contributors to economic growth in 2014."  Compare this to the fact that the construction industry grew 4.2 percent in 2014 and contributed .29 percent (a drop from 2013) and .20 percentage to Gross Domestic Product growth.

Aria Bendix concedes, "Still, Trump does have a point, at least on this matter.  Norman Anderson added,

What I call strategic infrastructure investment is actually the only way that we restart and re-found our economic prosperity.

Workers at Trump International Hotel and Tower
Washington D.C.
Mr. Anderson posits that the problem is stimulating the economy is difficult to achieve with "non-traditional" project that do not incorporate technology or innovation.

Ms. Bendix's CityLab colleague, Richard Florida points out that "not all construction leads to economic growth; the type of construction and the spatial distribution of our cities and suburbs matter as well.  Mr. Florida wrote,

The ultimate [economic] to achieve the kind of density and milling height that have long fueled urban creativity and powered innovation.

If past projects are any indication, any sort of thoughtful and innovative planning does not figure into the mix.

Trump World Tower
New York City, New York

When it comes to buildings, the bigger the better

Blogger must resist to make some crack about Mr. Trump's manhood or lack thereof.  Oops, my bad.  Seriously, Mr. Trump's overarching philosophy, when it comes to buildings, "bigger is better."  This may enhance his ego (what did you think Blogger was going to say?), it does not improve local communities.  One example, Trump Tower in Chicago.

Donald Trump's name stretches across almost 2,900 square feet in huge stainless steel, sparking the ire of residents and civic officials.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel called it architecturally tasteless.  In an article for The Chicago Tribune, Eric Scott expressed this sentiment:

If Trump's rather un-presidential remark about Mexican-Americans and people from Mexico is considered a hate crime, then shouldn't the T-R-U-M-P sign be considered a symbol of hate and ordered to be taken down?

Donald Trump had a different thought.  He told The Tribune, times passes, it'll be like the Hollywood sign. 


Joshua Stein, a commercial real estate lawyer, went as far as to suggest Mr. Trump's eponymous tower has landmark potential.  Mr. Stein told The New York Times in 2013:

You could subscribe to the theory that towers like [the Trump World Tower in New York] are the Empire State Buildings of the 21st century.

It is a stretch but assuming that these towers have some cultural significant, their enormous size comes at a long-term financial and aesthetic price.  The Times reported " order to build his 72-story-high Trump World Tower, Trump hoarded air rights from seven low-rise properties nearby.  This permitted his tower to take up all of the allowable density for the entire block, according to The Times, thereby preventing additional construction (which, Trump would argue, is America's greatest economic stimulus)."

What kind of infrastructure reform, if any at all, will Donald Trump make if he is elected is her to forecast.  However, one thing is clear: based on his words and actions, Mr. Trump believes in a number of fallacies about how cities and should operate.

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